Geography is an important part of any nation and is a key factor in shaping people’s lives. The landscape, climate, and history of different places are all major factors that go into how people live their lives in a particular region. Similarly, the lives and histories of Afghans or Pashtuns are greatly influenced by their geography.
Accordingly, Pashtun sufferings in the distant past and current difficulties in Afghanistan and Pakistan are in large measure the product of a troubled history and the baggage of their geographical location. These have combined to produce a venerable state, open to meddling from a range of external powers. Recorded history tells us that for the last five thousand years, Pashtuns have been engaged with enemies. The Pashtuns have faced more invasions than any other people in the world. Whether they were Greeks, Kushans, Mongols, Turks, white Huns, Persians, Mughals, and especially the British in the nineteenth century, Russians in the twentieth century, or Americans in the twenty-first,
Afghans or Pashtuns achieved unity first under the command of Mirwais Hotak, who successfully revolted against the Safavids in the city of Kandhar in 1707, and later on by the young Ahmad Shah Durani in 1747, which included most of present-day Pakistan and emerged on the world map as an independent nation in the early 18th century.
Geographic location and geostrategic importance Located at the confluence of great mountains and with a turbulent history, the Afghanistan region was once referred to as the “cockpit of Asia” by Lord Curzon. Geography has placed the region at the crossroads of global and regional politics, strategic interests, and particularly economic interests as a potential conduit for energy routes (the oil and gas pipelines of Central Asia).
Nothing could be more relevant than Dr. Allama Iqbal’s well-quoted verses on Afghanistan’s strategic importance, located between South and Central Asia at the centre of Asia’s trade and economic junction between China, India, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Indian Ocean.
In Javid Nama, Allama Iqbal says, “Asia is like a human body, made of water and clay, and the Afghan nation in that body is like the heart!” If there is peace in Afghanistan, there will be peace in Asia. If there is turmoil in Afghanistan, then there will be turmoil in Asia.
Afghans have hardly seen any peace and prosperity even in the reign of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of present-day Afghanistan, who invaded north India five times between 1748 and 1761. On the way to India, he fought with the Mughals and Sikhs. After the Mughals were defeated, Afghan rulers invaded Lahore more than seven times. They later became involved with British colonial power in the subcontinent when the British East India Company established Raj, which lasted from 1858 to 1947.
Due to its geostrategic importance, the Pashtuns faced the outrage of British imperialism when the First Anglo-Afghan War was fought between the British Empire and the Emirate of Kabul from 1838 to 1842. Then the Second Anglo-Afghan War took place from 1878 to 1880. The Pashtuns were divided for the first time in history as a result of British colonial power’s forward policies, and the Durand Line was drawn, which had been a sphere of influence between Afghanistan and British India and is now the 2,640-kilometer border between Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1947.
Pashtuns in united India were further divided under the British game of divide and rule and kept in four different administrative areas, namely:
1) British Balochistan, governed by the Chief Commissioner Though the area and population were predominantly Pashtun, the British government named it after Baloch due to their old enmities with Afghans. Areas and populations included from Quetta to Zhob and Loralai to Sibi were predominantly Pashto. However, some Baloch areas, like Chaghi, Nushki, Kohlu, and Dera Bugti, were kept as part of the province to divide both Pashtun and Baloch. Later on, in 1970, this area was merged with the State of Kalat, and a new province, Balochistan, was created. Since then, resentment and unrest have prevailed in the Pashtun population in united India and later in the post-colonial era due to their 1970 merger, which went against the wishes of the Baloch-dominated political arrangements in the province.
2) FATA, or Federally Administered Tribal Areas, were retained under the federal government of united India with semi-autonomous status and were governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). Those were a draconian set of laws of British India that were applicable to the FATA and remained in effect in Pakistan until 2018 when the area was merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
NWFP, or North West Frontier Province (earlier name: Afghania), was another Chief Commissioner Province of British India. It was founded on November 9, 1901. Following the referendum, it acceded accordingly on August 14, 1947. It was known by this name until April 19, 2010, when it was redesignated as the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, following the passing of the eighteenth amendment to the constitution by the PPP government.
Pashtun resentment started from day one against the British colonials when the province was created due to the change of name from Afghania to NWFP and further divisions of Pashtun within the province.
4) PATA, Provincially Administered Tribal Areas These administrative arrangements were made after creating Pakistan. It was the former administrative subdivision of Pakistan, designated in Article 246(b) of the constitution. No Act of Provincial Assembly was applied to PATA. In 2018, a 25th amendment to the 1973 constitution merged PATA as well as FATA under the full control of the Khyber-Paktunkhwa government; thus, the FATA and PATA designations have no legal standing in the future of Khyber-Paktunkhwa.
There were two things the British feared the most as threats to their rule in a united India. The first was the Russian invasion and extension of influence into Afghanistan and its outreach to warm water. The second was a united Pakhtun rebellion on the British Indian side of the Durand Line, with Afghan support.
Despite all efforts made by the Afghan kings to have cordial relations with British India, they were never trusted as friends; rather, the British, under the “divide and rule” policies, ensured that Pashtuns could never be brought together under one banner. The British divided them first through the Durand Line and then within India into three distinct independent provinces, ensuring there was no connectivity between them.
The British stereotyped Pashtuns as “noble savages.” They needed an illiterate fighter that could be brought under the banner of religion and made to fight for them as their first line of defense. They deliberately kept Pashtuns away from modernity and civility. They made Pashtun look rude and untrustworthy. They paid the mullahs, pirs, and, of course, the maliks to endorse their policies and show the British as fellow people of the book with whom Muslims could marry, whereas the Russians were infidels and the real enemies of Islam and Muslims. When.
Thus, the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand line faced the wrath of the Great Game inflicted by British imperial power in the nineteenth century, the former Soviet army marching on Afghanistan in 1979 in the twentieth century, and the most recent invasion of the so-called free world led by the United States in the twenty-first century. A massive military operation, the patrio-dollar Afghan Jihad, which lasted about four decades and cost more than four million Afghan lives, combined with the establishment of more than 20,000 religious seminaries along the Durand line without opposition, and the rest is history. (To be continued)
Sher Khan Bazai, the writer is retired from civil service as a Secretary of Education, Balochistan. The writer can be reached at [email protected]